ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo landed in Pakistan Wednesday afternoon, telling journalists on his plane beforehand that he hoped to “turn the page” and “reset the relationship” with the new government.
Ties between the longtime security allies have been marked by deepening tensions and sharp disagreements over Pakistan’s alleged harboring of anti-Afghan militants.
The secretary of state also told reporters that Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador, was traveling with him and would be joining the Trump administration as a special envoy to Afghanistan, with a focus on pursuing reconciliation and peace talks with the Taliban. It was the first official confirmation of widespread reports that Khalilzad would be named to the position, which has been vacant since Trump took office.
The atmosphere that greeted Pompeo and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as they prepared to meet with civilian and military officials including new Prime Minister Imran Khan, was one of wary skepticism, indignation and defiance.
Ties have been further hit by the Trump administration’s decision to cut another $300 million in U.S. military aid just days before the visit.
For the past week, Pakistani officials and commentators have been denouncing the United States as a bully seeking to force Pakistan to do its bidding and failing to appreciate its own efforts to fight Islamist terrorism. Khan and his aides have repeatedly insisted that the bilateral relationship must be based on “mutual respect,” and that Pakistan’s national interests must come first.
“The antagonism witnessed now is unprecedented,” Zahid Hussain, a columnist for Dawn newspaper, wrote Wednesday. “Washington’s demand for unquestionable compliance is unacceptable to Pakistan.” Although noting that the two “frenemies” cannot afford to break up, he added, U.S. efforts to “punish” Pakistan with aid cuts and belittle it with “humiliating tweets” will only backfire.
Pompeo and Dunford held closed-door meetings with Pakistani officials, during a brief stopover en route to India.
While they were in talks, government spokesman Mohammad Faisal tweeted that the new foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, had told the visitors that the government seeks to improve bilateral ties, but “safeguarding Pakistan’s national interests will remain [the] supreme priority.” Pakistan’s chief national interests include protecting its nuclear arsenal and guarding against aggression by India, its next-door rival.
Pompeo, while expressing hopes for “finding common ground” with the new government in Islamabad, was also cautious in his pre-arrival comments, telling reporters the visit was an opportunity to “walk through the complexity” of the relationship and “hopefully begin to make some progress so that we can get back to a set of common understandings.”
He played down the likely impact of the large new military aid cut on efforts at rapprochement, saying the Pakistani government had been told it would happen in advance and knew why. “This wasn’t news to the Pakistanis,” he said. “The rationale for them not getting the money is very clear. It’s that we haven’t seen the progress that we need to see from them.”
Pompeo was referring to the continued U.S. insistence that Pakistan is sheltering Islamist militants who cross the border to attack Afghanistan. Pakistan has repeatedly denied the charge, but Afghan officials accused Pakistan just last month of sending fighters across the border to attack the city of Ghazni, which was besieged by Taliban forces for four days.